by Rob Gonsalves
Nick Hornby's novel "About a Boy" is really about two boys: Marcus (Nicholas Hoult), a long-suffering and ridiculed 12-year-old weathering the instabilities of his depressive divorced mom Fiona (Toni Collette), and Will (Hugh Grant), a well-to-do 38-year-old loafer who grudgingly takes Marcus under his wing.Living comfortably off the royalties of a novelty Christmas song ("Santa's Super Sleigh," perhaps Hornby's nod to Melvin and Howard) written by his dad, Will isn't quite proud of the fact that he does "nothing" (his stock answer when asked what he does), though he is proud that he's closing in on 40 without having gotten dragged into anything messy or emotional -- anything meaningful, in other words.
"Good vehicle for Hugh Grant."
Hornby specializes in overgrown boys surrounding themselves with cocoons of comforting, life-blocking stuff. In High Fidelity, adapted into a John Cusack vehicle in 2000, it was records and music trivia; here it's the empty, flashy detritus of a solitary rich man's flat. Both stories are also inextricably linked to music; the novel unfolds during 1993 and 1994, when Kurt Cobain nearly killed himself and then succeeded, and is named after the Nirvana song "About a Girl." (Hornby, who occasionally writes music reviews for The New Yorker, obviously has pop on the brain.) And both stories are about how the overgrown boys are forced to mature.
Will stumbles into the position of Marcus's adult friend (certainly Will considers himself in no way a father or even big brother) during a particularly dodgy period when he's attending a single-parent support group, pretending to have a never-seen son named Ned, in order to meet and date single mothers. While dating Suzie (Victoria Smurfit), a friend of Fiona's, Will meets Marcus on a support-group picnic. Before long, Will is drawn quite against his will ("against my better judgment," he might put it) into the problems of the miserable Marcus and his equally despondent mum. Who needs the hassle? Surely Will doesn't. Yet Marcus does fill a need Will hadn't even known was there -- he gives Will a purpose, a reason to get up in the morning other than himself. Slowly, and bitching all the way, Will begins to help Marcus, and realizes that Marcus is the one helping him.
If the role of Will wasn't written for Hugh Grant, it may as well have been. For perhaps the first time, Grant is allowed to headline a movie in which he isn't a variation on the amiably stammering Englishman he played in Four Weddings and a Funeral. He dined out on that for years, even though he'd played different kinds of parts before that, and his supporting role as a womanizing cad in 2001's Bridget Jones's Diary may have been a dry run for Will, a decent enough fellow whom one character accurately describes as "blank." Well, it's not that he's blank, really -- he knows there's something missing, he's just too comfortable on the couch to go out in the chaos of life and relationships to look for it. Grant plays him as a man in transition, with potential that could point to triumph or disaster, and manages to paint shades of both hope and fear into the performance.
Marcus (a fine, uncutesy job by newcomer Hoult) needs a father figure, or at least, as he puts it, "back-up." Fiona loves him as much as she's able, but her unpredictable bouts with depression scare him, particularly when one of them almost results in her going the way of Kurt Cobain. Sadly, the script -- by directors Chris and Paul Weitz of American Pie, along with Peter Hedges of What's Eating Gilbert Grape -- drops all the book's Nirvana/Cobain references, perhaps because the filmmakers were denied the rights to use Nirvana's music or Cobain's image. Happily, the movie, following Hornby's lead, doesn't do anything so clichéd as having Will and Fiona fall in love. Instead, Will falls for Rachel (Rachel Weisz), a children's book illustrator who assumes that Marcus is Will's son, an assumption Will does little to dissuade.
I could've done without the "Killing Me Softly" finale (though it's amusing to watch Hugh Grant rocking out to Roberta Flack on guitar), and the movie's loss of the Kurt Cobain backdrop also reduces one of the novel's more interesting characters -- Ellie (Nat Gastiain Tena), a punkish older girl who takes a liking to Marcus. In the book, it's Nirvana that unites them; here nothing much seems to bind them together, and she's only in a handful of scenes."About a Boy" is more successful as a Hugh Grant vehicle than as a Nick Hornby adaptation. It should reanimate Grant's career as a leading man, though, and it establishes the Weitz brothers as filmmakers who can do more than teen lust and pastry intimacy.
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originally posted: 12/25/06 13:14:01